ODDBALL. Starring: Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, Coco Jack Gillies, and Deborah Mailman. Directed by Stuart McDonald. Rated G (General). 95 min.
This Australian film is based on a true story about an eccentric chicken-farmer, who trained his dog to protect a wild penguin sanctuary on Middle Island that lies off the coast of Warrnambool in South-West Victoria. All the animals in the movie are live, and the film has no computer-generated effects. The Fairy Penguin colony on Middle Island now thrives under canine protection.
"Swampy" Marsh (Shane Jacobson) is the main human character in the movie. He is loveable, likeable, difficult, and can be irritating. He is totally against bureaucracy of any kind, and he uses his beloved dog to protect his chickens. Being a little hard to get on with, Swampy has regular fights with the local Council, and its employees.
The Council is seriously concerned about the depletion of penguins on Middle Island. The penguins' presence on the island is the town's livelihood ("they bring a special magic to the town"), and everyone realises something has to be done to prevent foxes from attacking and killing them. The colony of little Penguins that nests on the island are threatened constantly by the foxes, which routinely make their way by night across the waves at low tide to where the penguins are.
Swampy learns that Maremma dogs are known to protect herds of animals from wolves and foxes, and his dog is a Maremma. Maremma's are born and bred to care for other animals, and he decides to train his dog ("Oddball") with the help of his granddaughter (Coco Jack Gillies) to protect the inhabitants of Middle Island. The challenge to both of them is to train Oddball to protect tiny little animals, which are just a fraction of his own size.
The same trainer who worked on "Red Dog" helped train Oddball for this role. Oddball was discovered at the RSPCA in January, 2014 and was groomed for movie stardom. Like "Red Dog" (who has now died), Kai (the dog's real name) is an absolute scene stealer as Oddball. Scenes of Oddball snuggling up affectionately to Fairy Penguins are worth the price of admission to the movie. Six tiny penguins were flown from Sea World on the Gold Coast to be especially looked after by Oddball, and they obviously responded well to Oddball's canine attention.
This is an unusually fresh-looking comedy about a good natured Aussie character, who saves an entire colony of tiny penguins. Shane Jacobson captures wonderfully well the oddness and eccentricity of Swampy Marsh, reminding the viewer once again of the performance that he delivered so engagingly as the Portaloo Plumber in the title role of the hit movie, "Kenny" (2008). Here, he evidences the same likeable personality, and Sarah Snook gives him great support as Emily, his caring daughter. Deborah Mailman gives an understated, but effective, performance as the town's compassionate, indigenous mayor.
There is great scenery to match the story-line, and this is an entirely human-friendly movie that the whole family can easily enjoy. There is no crudity in the movie; no one is hurt; and Kai stands poised to claim the affection that the public willingly gave to Red Dog.
This "G", non-animated movie - bylined as "a fairy tale that really happens" - is very entertaining, and it has been made to be enjoyed by parents and children alike. There is a little bit of mystery intrigue along the way, as conflicting interests do battle with Swampy's firm resolve, but the movie is filled to the brim with family values and scenes showing both humans and animals needing to depend on each other.
A film like this is rather rare these days. It has its simplistic moments, but it is a home-grown movie that effortlessly fulfils the expectations of family-friendly cinema, and it has some very cute little animals.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released September 10, 2015